This opinion was first published in The Standard newspaper on Friday, March 13, 2020
I arrived in New York on the same day that a young woman was announced to have tested positive for the coronavirus. The healthcare worker had just returned from Iran and immediately placed herself in isolation in her apartment with her husband, who has tested negative despite living in the same house with her.She was responsible enough to have taken a lot of precautionary measures – she did not take public transportation and quickly isolated herself to ensure that the disease does not spread.
I had been reading about the virus while in Kenya and like many Kenyans, it seemed abstract and distant like stories of the British monarchy. Now here I was in what seemed to be the epicentre of it in the US. Of course, it wasn’t but watching the news, it felt like it.I was scheduled to travel to the west coast of the country to San Francisco the very next day as soon as my meeting was done, so I was relieved to be going to relative safety away from the virus.
But two days after I arrived in San Francisco, it was announced that an elderly man who also had been in Iran had died of the virus, in a town 302km from my location. A ship had been held off the San Francisco shores in which passengers had tested positive for the virus. What terror! I could not run away from this confounded virus.My paranoia went on overdrive. I declined handshakes from people who I considered friends. I obsessively sanitised my hands after touching everything.
I wiped down every seat, every table that I came in close contact with. When I walked out on the streets and encountered a cold breeze that made my nose water, I was terrified that I had got it. Aren’t sniffles one of the signs?What was striking is that fear is a contagious thing – far more than the actual disease. The people of San Francisco had descended upon every pharmacy and supermarket where they bought all masks, wipes, sanitiser bottles, and disinfectants that they could find. The news of contagion was in the air and people wanted to grasp at anything that would save them.
The data shows that more than half of people who get the disease get better in about a month.
“You don’t need masks if you are not sick,” announced doctors and WHO to deaf ears. “Just wash your hands and avoid shaking hands.”Panic is an interesting thing. It is “sudden desertion of us, and a going over to the enemy of our imagination,” said the epigrammatic New York City writer, Christian Nestell Bovee. It causes the imagination to flare up and all senses are besieged with the looming danger that one perceives. The only way to combat panic is to find information and counter it with facts.
In my quest to look for information, I have found that the major challenge that exists is communication. The communication that has been going out right now has involved government and WHO talking heads essentially trying to calm nerves and tell people that things are under control. This is a great short term measure, but it does not help people to remain calm for very long.
Governments and relevant organisations now need to switch to communications that help people to know what to expect if they get the disease. There should be many more stories coming out of the people who have recovered. The data shows that more than half of people who get the disease get better in about a month. Unfortunately, the data that is rehashed by scientists is that of infections and deaths.
As at yesterday, there were over 126,000 people who have been infected. Of these more than 68,300 have fully recovered. Of the over 53,000 active cases 89 per cent of the infections are mild condition. About 5,000 people are in critical condition. There have been just over 4,600 deaths and while every death is tragic, it would allay some of the panic to give context to the progression of this virus.
Here’s what I have learnt so far that has given me comfort. Covid-19, is not necessarily a death sentence. If you get it, you would experience all of the symptoms of a very bad flu – high fever, aches and pains everywhere, trouble breathing, loss of appetite and weakness.
Most people go through it and are treated with pain and fever medications and antibiotics and they recover fully. The people who are most at risk are the elderly and people who have underlying health issues like heart conditions, kidney conditions and those whose immunity is compromised.
So I learnt to be paranoid, but not to panic. I have to wash and sanitise my hands frequently, wipe down all surfaces with disinfectant especially in public places and avoid crowded places as much as possible. I learnt that I do not need a mask unless I am sick and that I should leave those to be available to the medical professionals.
I came back to Kenya, thankfully, without any traces of the virus. I had no symptoms at all. But I have to be responsible to my family and friends and so I am writing this from a house, where I am self-isolating for 5-7 days, just to be sure.Amidst all the fear, there is reason to hope that it will get better, even though it might get worse first.